by Deborah Hadfield
The shortage in game birds is pushing up the price of shooting and birds. Pheasant and partridge chicks may not be worth their weight in gold but, at current bullion prices, they are worth their weight in silver. Bird flu in France has caused a shortage of eggs and poults. The lack of birds and high prices have already caused many shoots to close .Estates are diversifying to survive. Hawthorn Sporting at Bowhill in the Scottish Borders is one of many replacing driven days with simulated clay shoots. Stuart Riddell and his son Robert run Hawthorn. The 65-year-old is a fifth generation gamekeeper. As a tenant he has worked the estate for 25 years. He says: “Covid was bad enough. But this is this is just major. I think the biggest problem is that I bought the eggs at the beginning because I had 14 driven days sold. And I bought them to give people some shooting but I’ve had to sell the eggs.”
Stuart says the high cost of birds meant the shoot wasn’t financially viable. He has invested almost £30,000 in setting up simulated clay shooting. He’s hoping it can save his business. He says: “I paid for the traps with my pension, which is dwindling very fast. I am a little disappointed as I was hoping to try and sell one a week to just bring in a little bit of income.”
Stuart and his family are planning to hold corporate days to attract more shooters. He says: “We want to be bringing people from the towns into the countryside for the day. We can do tuition as we have an instructor that’s really close to us so I think that would work really well.”
The gamekeeper is also hoping the new venture will secure his future. Stuart says: “I hope it will help the shoot for the next few years to recover from having two or three years of losing money. We would like to think that this will make a big difference to us.”
Before covid, in 2019, UK shoots imported 20 million pheasants and around 10 million partridges from France, the majority as eggs. The winter outbreak of bird flu is in the Vendee and Loire regions, where many of the UK’s game birds are bred. France has relaxed restrictions as the country is seeing a halt outbreaks in the country after the worst-ever crisis of the highly contagious virus led to the culling of 16 million birds. Around the world the spread of avian flu has caused concern due to its ability to ravage flocks, potential trade restrictions and a risk of human transmission. 4 million birds were culled is southwestern France after a first wave. The country faced outbreaks further north on the Atlantic coast, believed to have been brought by returning wild birds.
Despite the sign of hope across the channel the current restrictions mean the chances of imports this year are slim. Geoff Garrod of the National Gamekeepers Organisation says that, after covid, the current crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time for the shooting community. He says: “I know that there are shoots that have shut down because of covid. It was very good last year. You think right we’re over covid and now we’ve got bird flu.”
Geoff says bird flu is becoming a devastating disease. He says: “We always have had bird flu and we always used to sort of think that it came in with the wild fowl. It was here during wintertime. It disappeared with the wild fowl; hot weather used to kill it off. But now it seems to be coming back with a vengeance.”
The bird shortage is forcing some shoots to swap to alternative suppliers. Scottish gamekeeper Stuart Riddell sourced eggs from Poland because the game farm he has been using for 25 years couldn’t help. He says: “We had to pay up front before we had one egg in the country, which was very nerve wracking. So everything was paid upfront, probably about four or five times the price it should have been.”
The situation is not as bad in Northern Ireland At the Irish Game Fair there were plenty of birds at the show, although not for anyone from Wales Scotland or England. Birds from Whitehill Hatchery cost £4.30 each. Day-olds cost £1.20. That’s more than last year but a lot less than the rest of the UK. Shoots on mainland Britain can’t import them because, when it comes to trade, Northern Ireland is part of the European Union. And there are shoots that are swapping bird shooting for simulated in the coming season, such as this stand holder, the Clegane Estate in County Antrim.
Despite the issues in France and the increasing number of cases of Bird flu in the UK, BASC hopes that shooting will recover from the current challenges. Glynn Evans, BASC’s head of game & gundogs, admits it is a disappointing season for many people. He says the community needs to focus on the positives. He says: “There are some so some shoots that are now looking at how they secure their supply chains for the future. This will build in a degree of robustness.
“One of the things that we will probably learn from this, current situation is enhanced biosecurity, proper procedures in place. The positive is that we’ve bounced back from many other really bad situations. We’ve had COVID, we’ve had foot and mouth in the past, and we have bounced back from them. And there’s no reason why this will not be any different.”
For Stuart and many shooters this season won’t look like any other. He’s hopeful that adapting to the challenges may prove vital to protect the future of shooting. He says: “You have to dig in. You have to be very, very strong and it does affect you quite badly. And you just have to think there is there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”